Kate Atkinson has spent her afternoon stuck in traffic. It's hardly an ideal way to pass a day, but after finally making it to her home in Edinburgh, Scotland, the best-selling author sounds undaunted even effervescent in a telephone interview. The cheerful Scottish lilt in her voice probably doesn't hurt.
Of course, Atkinson has a lot to be happy about. She rocketed to success with her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, which beat out Salman Rushdie to win the Whitbread Book of the Year in 1995. Critics heaped more accolades on her most recent novel Case Histories, including some unimaginably high praise from Stephen King (more on that later). In her latest book, One Good Turn, we revisit Jackson Brodie, the now retired detective from Case Histories. Brodie finds himself at the Edinburgh Arts Festival just in time to become enmeshed in a growing scandal that includes a frightening road-rage incident and the murder of a has-been comic.
Atkinson manages to keep tabs on a host of engaging characters in addition to Brodie, including depressed mystery writer Martin Canning, police detective Louise Monroe and feisty Gloria Hatter, wife of an unscrupulous homebuilder whose illegal practices are about to catch up with him. It's Gloria a 60-something woman who is arguably the soul of the book with whom Atkinson most identifies.
"Gloria is me," Atkinson says with a laugh. "She's the closest to me of all characters I've ever written. She's very strong and secretive, although she doesn't appear to be secretive. She's powerful yet disenfranchised. She likes rules and likes to obey rules. She wants people to do things properly. She's become fascist in her old age. I really feel myself becoming that way." Gloria, who despises her husband's deplorable business dealings and yearns for a clean break, also happens to live in the same Edinburgh suburb, known as the Grange, where Atkinson lives. "I've never brought a character so close to home," she says.
The characters of One Good Turn, including Brodie, who is drifting through retirement, seem to be struggling to find their way. Atkinson sees this as a reflection of the ups and downs of real life.
"I never see them as miserable, unhappy characters," she says. "They're just complex. Most people have fractured lives and are unhappy. I kind of see them as normal people." Such richly imagined characters set Atkinson's books apart from many mysteries, in which the unsolved case generally takes precedence over character development. Despite the success of Case Histories and the subject matter of One Good Turn, Atkinson actually does not consider herself a crime writer.
"People always want to ask a genre question when I write a book," she said. "It's just the book I'm writing. I was aware when I wrote Case Histories that it would be perceived as crime fiction. But I didn't feel I was writing a crime novel. It was just my novel with crime in it." As it turns out, the genre question is not the only thing readers want to ask Atkinson about when she hits the road to promote a new book. While grateful for the support of her fans, Atkinson still is shocked at the level of familiarity some people assume when she appears at book readings. In fact, the character of Martin Canning reflects Atkinson's fascination with the dilemma of being a well-known author who is actually quite private.
"I was once asked by two women at an event how often I had sex!" she recalls. "People think they're intimate with you from reading your books. I never think of giving myself away like that." What Atkinson does give consistently is clever, intoxicating storytelling that keeps readers guessing until the end. One Good Turn is a fast-paced, intricately woven tale of mistaken identity and bad behavior. Atkinson's new novel is even more intriguing thanks to its colorful backdrop: Edinburgh's annual arts festival, a booming mix of dance, music, theater and opera that takes over the Scottish capital (and in fact was responsible for the traffic jam that tied her up all afternoon). Atkinson brings her hometown's quirky festival to life, offering the perfect setting for murder and mayhem. It is a romp of a read that makes good on the promise of Atkinson's earlier efforts.
Which brings us back to Stephen King. In 2005, the author and Entertainment Weekly columnist named Case Histories his favorite book of the year, calling it the literary equivalent of a triple axel and the best mystery of the decade. In King's opinion, this placed Atkinson head and shoulders above some of his other favorite authors from that year, including heavy hitters J.K. Rowling, Ian McEwan, George Pelecanos and Cormac McCarthy. When this is mentioned, Atkinson laughs uproariously, still sounding more than a bit disbelieving.
When King's column appeared, Atkinson recalled, her publicist "forwarded the quote to me in an e-mail, and wrote 'Holy Cow!' with 100 exclamation points. It's a quote you could not buy. That was just a gift, really. It will now be on every book!" And may there be many more Atkinson books on which to plaster that gift.
Amy Scribner is a writer in Olympia, Washington.